The Galloway Picts Project: update

Latest news from this fascinating archaeological project at Trusty’s Hill near Gatehouse-of-Fleet.

The ‘Data Structure Report’ from last year’s excavation is now available as a PDF file on the project website. It’s an interim publication in which the results are presented in a way that allows specialists to understand the archaeological context of each ‘find’ unearthed during fieldwork.

For the non-specialist, the report gives an excellent overview of what was discovered. Trusty’s Hill has long been known for the Pictish symbols incised on a rock near the summit, but nobody really knew who carved them, or when, or why. Some people even doubted that the carvings were ancient, and wondered if later graffiti offered a better explanation. Likewise, not much was known about the hillfort itself, although there were several theories about Pictish raiders using it or attacking it.

Thanks to the 2012 excavation we now know that the hilltop was a fortified settlement of major importance in the 6th-7th centuries AD. The people who lived there were wealthy and powerful. They imported the kinds of luxury goods associated with sites of very high status, such as Dunadd in Argyll. On the summit of Dunadd is a group of features associated with royal inauguration rituals – not only the famous footprint but also a rock-cut basin and a carved Pictish boar. At Trusty’s Hill the 2012 excavation found a similar rock-cut basin near the Pictish symbols, so it seems likely that important ceremonies were performed there too.

Anyone with an interest in early medieval Galloway will find this report useful and thought-provoking. It brings a little more clarity to our understanding of what was happening on the northern side of the Solway Firth in the time of shadowy figures such as Saint Ninian and Urien Rheged (both of whom are traditionally linked to the region). Evidence of high-status activity at other Galloway sites such as Whithorn and Mote of Mark has been the bedrock of scholarship for many years, but the information now emerging from Trusty’s Hill is a game-changer. It really does seem as if something ‘Pictish’ was going on there after all.

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Ronan Toolis & Christopher Bowles, The Galloway Picts Project: Excavation and Survey of Trusty’s Hill, Gatehouse of Fleet. Data Structure Report (March 2013).

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I am grateful to Ronan Toolis for letting me know about the report when it went online yesterday.

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16 comments on “The Galloway Picts Project: update

  1. Tim, what is the Pictish symbol to the far right. I see the double disk Z-rod and a sword/dagger but what is that other symbol? Is the Mote of Mark of a similar date?

    • Tim says:

      Hi Michelle. The symbol on the right is usually identified as a seahorse, dolphin or ‘sea-monster’, with what appears to be a dagger pointing at its underside.

      The little horned head in the lower left corner, previously a mystery, has now been confirmed as modern not ancient. The name ‘Trusty’ turns out to be modern as well.

      Also confirmed by last year’s excavation is that Trusty’s Hill and Mote of Mark were occupied at roughly the same time. I’m wondering if the Mote might have been a subordinate site for the elite (possibly royal) occupants of Trusty’s Hill, maybe a coastal stronghold serving as a trading centre for high-status imports (exchanged for local goods such as ornamental brooches, etc). Both sites show evidence of metalworking by skilled artisans.

      • Chris Pickles says:

        Do you think that the sword/dagger is also a later forgery? The smiley face with the long antennae looks a bit like a juvenile diagram of a woman’s parts, likewise the ‘sword’ looks rather like what Philip Larkin saw in Sunny Prestatyn – ‘an enormous cock and balls’.

        I’m inclined to think that the ‘sword’ is also a bit of later graffiti, thus leaving the standard two symbols on the stone.

        • Tim says:

          I reckon this kind of ‘saucy’ imagery would fit the graffiti theory, Chris, but it looks as if we’ll have to wait until the full examination of the carvings is published. The report seems to accept that the sword/dagger may be ancient but notes that ‘Specialist analysis of the Pictish Inscription is currently ongoing’. I’m not aware of any other Pictish sea-beasts (including the ‘swimming elephant’ symbol) being accompanied by a pointed weapon so the combination here does seem to be unique.

          • Perhaps a sword at the sea beast is a threat – a way of saying they control the sea or that they took the fort from a people who used it as a symbol.

            • Tim says:

              Seems to fit the imagery well enough, Michelle. Access to the sea, and some element of control in the waters of the Solway Firth, would have been important to these folk because of their taste for luxury imports from the Continent.

      • Perhaps this fort took on some of the role of the Gatehouse of the Fleet – guarding / extorting traffic on the Solway. Is Gatehouse of Roman date?

        • Tim says:

          I think the name is quite late – maybe 1700s? The original gatehouse was a place where tolls were collected from travellers on the main east-west highway where it crossed the River Fleet.

          Not sure about a Roman presence in the immediate vicinity, but it does have an impressive castle called Cardoness – which is pretty much on the road, just a short distance along from Trusty’s Hill.

  2. William Gilbreath says:

    Tim: Where are the graves? Are there no bodies, more specifically, DNA that can be associated with the carvings and fort?

    • Tim says:

      Interesting question, Bill. As far as I can tell, no human remains were found. The fort’s occupants in the 6th/7th centuries were presumably buried in a cemetery associated with their local church (assuming they were Christians by then). But I suppose it’s possible that earlier, pre-Christian occupants were interred in graves nearer to the fort.

  3. Chris says:

    Tim, thanks for posting our work! Just for the conversation…there is a Roman road in the valley and a fortlet just up the river from Trusty’s Hill. Gatehouse is an 18th century planned mill town. But I do wonder about the placename of Cardonness. Is this a Brythonic survival of Trusty’s original name, but transferred to the medieval tower? Anwoth is another interesting placename. In terms of the burials, the most likely place is Ardwall Island which is at the mouth of the Fleet. Thomas’ excavations indicated at least an early Christian chapel with burials, but on analogy with Lindisfarne and Iona could it be a royal monastic establishment? I really hope someone takes another look there. More intriguingly are a series of crop marks up the Fleet Valley which resemble Pictish square barrows. Glasgow Uni undertook a community geophys project there last year which was unfortunately inconclusive. But they’re hoping to go back.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this additional information, Chris. Your mention of Cardoness reminded me that I’d seen something about this place-name many years ago, in Daphne Brooke’s 1991 article on the Northumbrian settlements:

      Immediately south and west of the Skyreburn the medieval lands of Cardoness preserved a Cumbric estate name’

      In an appendix to the same article, Daphne noted an early form Karden (1240) which she equated with Cumbric/Welsh cardden, ‘copse’. A quick glance at CPNS this evening yielded the Dunbartonshire place-name Cardinross (early 1200s), now Cardross. Watson interpreted this as ‘copse point’ or (far more likely, in my view) ‘copse moor’, for which he presumably had in mind the compound cardden-rhos.

      I’m not sure how much data is available for the origins of Cardoness Castle and haven’t really looked into it yet, but I’m wondering if the castle stands on the site of whatever settlement became the new estate centre after the destruction or abandonment of Trusty’s Hill.

      Daphne saw Anwoth as a Scandinavian name where the second element is wath, ‘ford’. She noted an early 13th C form Anewith but didn’t comment on the first part. If her suggestion of wath is correct, I wonder which ford is meant? Herbert Maxwell’s book might give a few hints but unfortunately I don’t have it here.

  4. Ed Watson says:

    Around 100 vitrified ruins have been identified around the world, yet more than half are located in Scotland and most of those are north of the Forth, suggesting this may have been a cultural phenomenon.

    Interesting that the report suggests that vitrification of the ramparts took place at the end of the fort’s occupation as a destructive act and not at the time of its construction. This may be correct in explaining partial vitrification of limited sections of the defences, however, a number of hillforts display consistent vitrification over a large portion of their ramparts.

    To achieve the extreme temperatures that stone requires for fusion, over 1,000 degrees Celsius, some form of structure would need to be erected around the rampart to concentrate the heat and ensure even application of the temperatures involved over a large area.

    The vitrification at Trusty’s Hill appears to be mainly on the inside of the rampart rather than the outside as you would expect from an aggressive act. Furthermore, a thick charcoal rich layer, presumably the product of the burning process, was only apparent on the interior of the rampart suggesting the heat source was from within the hillfort.

    It has been suggested that a hillfort may have been prepared for battle by vitrification but the process may not have been specifically intended to strengthen the defences, but possibly for ceremonial or ritual purposes. Significantly it appears that the entire summit at Trusty’s Hill was set ablaze and subjected to prolonged burning with no further evidence of occupation. Tempting to speculate if setting alight to the ramparts was the final act of the vanquished; a desperate defence mechanism or a last appeal to the gods?

    • Tim says:

      Useful comment, Ed, and thanks for posting it. You’ve raised a topic I investigated in some depth for a chapter on hillforts in my thesis (written c.1999) in which I looked at the role of these sites in warfare of the pre-Viking period. My study of vitrification appeared under the sub-heading ‘Fire, royal power and the destruction of enclosed places’. I haven’t caught up with recent hillfort-related articles (e.g. Alex Woolf’s ‘Fire from Heaven’) so my research is probably a bit out-of-date now.

      One theme I pursued back then was the ritual aspect of setting a hillfort ablaze, and the resulting spectacular display of flames leaping into the sky and being visible over a wide area. I also considered the likelihood that vitrification was preceded by the similarly spectacular sight of drystone ramparts glowing red at night. All of this, I surmised, was probably due (in many cases) to deliberate action by a conqueror who wanted to advertise his victory in (quite literally) a blaze of glory.

      You’re right about the amount of heat required for vitrification. Among the references I consulted were several reports of experiments conducted by scientists who demonstrated that vitrification was unlikely to have occurred without deliberate action by people who knew precisely how to generate sufficient heat. The existence of such individuals in early medieval Britain was suggested by the archaeologist Ian Ralston, whose views I noted in my thesis:

      Ralston has suggested that specialists in the destructive capabilities of fire may have been an occupational class at this time, a class whose members possessed “very considerable pyrotechnical abilities”.

      One theory I tossed into the mix was the possibility that Penda of Mercia may have had such specialists in his army when he attempted to burn Bamburgh in the mid-7th century.

      • Ed says:

        Fascinating stuff Tim. The thought of a pyrotechnic specialist employed within a army is quite intriguing. Destruction was evidently an important aspect of medieval warfare as shown on Dan Snow’s recent series Battle Castle which frequently demonstrated siege warfare and undermining of the castle walls by digging a tunnel underneath. The tunnel would be held up by wooden supports then on completion, flammable material would be placed around the supports and then the ‘pyrotechnician’ (?) would set it on fire. When the supports collapsed down would come the castle wall.
        What a job!

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